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Recent Developments in US Copyright Law - Part II, Caselaw: Exclusive Rights on the Ebb?


Jane C. Ginsburg


Columbia Law School

December 11, 2008

Revue Internationale du Droit d'Auteur, January 2009
Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 08-192

Abstract:     
The 1976 Act announces broad exclusive rights, offset by a myriad of specific exemptions, and one wide exception for "fair use." In words and intent, the exclusive rights are capacious, but new technologies may have caused some of the general phrases to become more constraining than might have been expected from a text whose drafters took pains to make forward-looking. Thus, the scope of the reproduction right turns on the meaning of "copy;" the reach of the distribution right on "distribute copies" and "transfer of ownership;" the range of the public performance right on "public" and "perform." Entrepreneurs and users of new technological means of exploiting copyrighted works have urged narrow constructions of each of these terms, arguing that broad interpretations will chill future innovation (and suppress present markets for copyright-exploiting devices or services). Copyright owners, concerned that unfettered new uses will supplant traditional copyright-controlled markets, have contended that the literal language, or, failing that, congressional intent, encompass the contested use. In addition, new technologies have called into question the identification of the person who "does" the copyright-implicating acts. Who makes a copy when the act is decomposed into steps taken by different actors? Who performs or displays a work when the work resides on one person's server, but the public perceives it through another person's website?

Several US courts have narrowly construed the reach of the exclusive rights of reproduction, distribution, public performance and public display, thus putting into doubt their efficacy in the digital environment. In particular, the Second Circuit's recent decision in Cartoon Networks v. CSC Holdings, if followed, could substantially eviscerate the reproduction and public performance rights. The growing number of decisions rejecting a "making available" right attests to some difficulties in adapting the distribution right to online exploitation. By contrast, one bright spot for authors appears in the area of moral rights, in which digital media may provide a means to make at least some authors' attribution interests enforceable. Because the decisions emanate from lower courts, including first-level courts, it is too soon to discern whether US copyright law is adopting a constricted conception of the scope of the economic rights under copyright, and if so, whether the decisions betoken an evolving (if often unarticulated) determination that copyright prerogatives should yield to technological preferences. In either event, the analyses and results contrast with solutions adopted in the European Union, and, in some instances, may be in tension with the US' international obligations.

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Date posted: November 21, 2008 ; Last revised: February 1, 2009

Suggested Citation

Ginsburg, Jane C., Recent Developments in US Copyright Law - Part II, Caselaw: Exclusive Rights on the Ebb? (December 11, 2008). Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 08-192; Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 08-192. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1305270

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Jane C. Ginsburg (Contact Author)
Columbia Law School ( email )
435 West 116th Street
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New York, NY 10027
United States
212-854-3325 (Phone)
212-854-7946 (Fax)
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